Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Creative Anachronisms

For me, one of the characteristics of old school gaming is its gleeful embrace of anachronisms. This is in keeping with its pulp literary roots. Howard's Hyborian Age, for example, was a pastiche of several different historical periods, all existing side by side because it allowed Two-Gun Bob to spin more interesting yarns that way. Leiber's Nehwon is much the same, with Lankhmar being at once an ancient, a medieval, and a modern city -- New York seen through pulp fantasy eyes. And of course Vance's Dying Earth is explicitly set in a time after time, perhaps making the very idea of anachronism devoid of meaning.

Early gaming walked the same path. The assumption in those days was that, since it was all fantasy anyway, why worry about historical accuracy? Sure, D&D borrows most heavily from the medieval period -- OD&D even bills itself "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns" -- but that's not the only period from which it borrows. Anyone who knows the details of the Greyhawk or Blackmoor campaigns will quickly see that neither was simply an imaginary medieval Europe with monsters and magic. What would be the fun in that? Gary and Dave saw inspirations in a lot of different sources and incorporated them into their home campaigns without any concern about whether it was "realistic" or not.

The only concern that matter was fun and so those early campaign settings are filled with lots of oddities and strangements, at least to modern gamer eyes. My feeling is that such things add to the charm of those settings and help establish that you're playing in a fantasy world whose rules , such as they are, do not necessarily mirror those of our own world. That's sometimes forgotten, which is throwing some anachronism into your adventures can often serve a useful purpose.

Of course, not everyone has the same sense of how much anachronism is too much. As referees, we must each draw our own lines in the sand. I tend to be pretty lenient, drawing the line primarily at anything "jokey," which is to say, at anything whose presence makes my players laugh (unless laughter is my explicit goal). By way of example, here are a handful of anachronisms I don't mind in my fantasy worlds and in fact often include:
  • Tobacco: Why invent "pipeweed" or some other replacement when you can have the real thing? Every fantasy world needs tobacco for wizards' pipes, if nothing else, and cigars were made for the Guildmaster of Thieves or corpulent merchant princes to wave around dramatically.
  • Eyeglasses: Yes, these did exist in the late Middle Ages, but they weren't widespread or as effective as modern lenses. More importantly, there were no sunglasses and I have no problem with them in my fantasy worlds. Heck, there's already precedent for magical glasses in D&D anyway, so why not mundane ones? I also seem to recall the Gray Mouser wore shades on occasion, though I may have imagined that.
  • Powdered Wigs: Nothing says pompous official or effete nobleman like a powdered wig.
  • Eating Utensils: How can you have a proper bar fight if someone can't grab a fork off the table and try to stab some half-orc ruffian with it?
  • Gender Equality: Believe it or not, there weren't female warriors in the Middle Ages or indeed pretty much anytime in history. Funny that.
I could go on, but I hope my point has been made. I don't mind if my fantasy worlds include lots of anachronistic details, big or small, so long as their inclusion doesn't hinder the fun. More to the point, I'm very much in favor of their inclusion if they help promote fun in some way or other. These are as close to cardinal principles of old school setting design as I can imagine. Everything else pales in importance.


  1. In my campaigns pipeweed and tobacco are one and the same. Isn't the term from Tolkien? I feel pretty confident that's how he used it.

  2. In Middle-Earth, "pipe-weed" is in fact synonymous with tobacco. Tolkien couldn't imagine his creation without tobacco (or potatoes), so he found places for them nonetheless.

    My beef isn't with Tolkien so much as it is with his imitators, many of whom have adopted "pipe-weed" as a generic term for a fantasy tobacco equivalent. The same goes for lots of other alternatives to real world things in fantasy settings. Mind you, nothing beats "smoke powder" for gunpowder in the Forgotten Realms when it comes to cheesiness.

  3. A commonly used monetary system is a pretty standard anachronism used across pseudo-fantasy rpgs I think. I'm not a professional scholar, but my understanding that barter was much more common than transactions with money. The exact opposite is true in rpgs, with even the lowly kobolds, goblins, and peasants having change in their pockets. Speaking of which- pockets are another anachronism!

  4. that should be pseudo-medieval, not pseudo-fantasy.

  5. Re: coinage

    I always felt that the pre-3e D&D monetary system did a nice job of appearing vaguely plausible while at the same time not being too unwieldy for everyday use. You're right, though, that barter was much more common than coinage in the Middle Ages and that's something that's never been represented in D&D in any edition that I recall.

  6. I guess I was a “modern gamer” in the 1980s then, ’cause that was when the “melting pot” nature of D&D drove me crazy. (^.^)

  7. Re: "modern"

    Here's where my idiosyncratic jargon sometimes get the worst of me. It's possible that you were in fact a "modern" gamer in the 1980s, since I usually use the word as an antonym to "old school." Concerns about verisimilitude or simulationism existed in the 1970s and 80s and I consider both of those concerns to be antithetical to old school gaming.

    Do you still object to the "melting pot" of D&D or have you come to terms with it?

  8. I wasn’t really taking issue with your choice of terms. I understood what you meant. I just thought it was kind of funny.

    Have I come to terms with it? I don’t know.

    I don’t object to it. I suppose I try to celebrate it. I can’t deny tendencies to pretend orcs don’t exist, swap goblins and hobgoblins, not using “pegasus” and “medusa” as species instead of individuals, and various other such things.

    I think, though, that my tendencies are today more towards creating my own “melting pot” rather than so much trying to honor myth or history.

    I’m really trying to suppress those tendencies, though. I think my effort is better spent building on top of whatever game I choose rather than futzing so much with what it gives me.

  9. I'm pretty sure pipe-weed did mean tobacco to Tolkien, but its enthusiastic misreading by British musicians in the 60's and 70's was, I think, a contributing factor in why LoTR became so popular with counter-culture folks at that time. In that spirit, I'm OK with it implicitly not meaning tobacco, especially for seers and shamans.

  10. Long-time reader, first-time poster. Let me just say I love what you're doing here, and throw in my 2cp.

    In my games, I've always used tobacco (pipes, not cigars, but thief guildmasters with cigars are a damn good idea!), as a luxury import from the Mysterious East or the Sunny Southern Continent.

    Eyeglasses are another standby I've used; never used shades, though. Latter fantasy aesthetics with "steampunk" influences (such as Iron Kingdoms and World of Warcraft) seem quite fond of goggles, though, which arguably serve a similar role. But I don't see them as Old School.

    I don't use powdered wigs and eating utensils because I still want to preserve a certain faux-Medieval atmosphere which is a big part of the Old School aesthetic to me. That, and eating knives are cool.

    Gender equality. At the risk of irking people... I like the idea of female warriors being underestimated by male opponents, only to soundly beat them in combat, moments later. I suppose this is a recurring trope in D&D's source material, which does have its share of warrior-women, from the Amazons of Greek myth to Dying Earth's Tsain.

  11. Re: Old school

    True: many of the things I listed here aren't especially old school. However, one of the hallmarks for "old school," in my opinion, is the willingness to borrow liberally from other genres and times. Early D&D, for example, had a notable sci-fi component to it, with aliens, spaceships, and laser weapons aplenty. Blackmoor incorporated this stuff into the setting in a major way and the Wilderlands includes it too, albeit as part of its deep backstory.

  12. Tobacco's only an anachronism at all if you assume the setting is medieval Europe. If not, then there's no reason to say the stuff isn't grown in some warm area of the setting.